Lisieux: Saints and Dissidents
A guide to a great, secret French Flea market
Over summer our weekends are crowded with the small local brocantes and vide-greniers dotted around Normandy. If you're into French antiques these are an essential part o your life. These can be great for picking the quirky oddities and collectibles from people clearing attics. However every few months there's a huge street market, usually hundreds of stall of antiques, occupying a whole town. Most of these are well known with antique dealers across Europe and attract a cosmopolitan range of buyers- Amiens and Lille are among the biggest fairs in Northern France and there are other déballages at Le Mans and Chartres. There are a few others which we can't tell you about yet as we don't want the professionals to encourage price rises :-)
Lisieux is on our list- 900 stalls occupying the center of town. This year, the brocante came at a weird time. Most will be aware of the Gilets Jaunes protests across France.The weekend of the brocante we realized the blocage would take place on the main autoroute between us and Lisieux from Saturday onwards, completely blocking the major town of Caen. We were determined to go (it's difficult to deter Carole when she wants to buy) so decided to leave at oh-my-God-o'clock on Friday. After some frantic triangulating on Google Maps, we decided the best route was to try and avoid all major towns and routes- instead we would take a route rustique driving through small village and down country lanes as a two hour drive would take closer to four. For added atmospherics, banks of thick rolling fogs were undulating across Normandy. The small roads were filled with other slightly nervous drivers, anxious to drive around a blocage and not die in the fog.
Lisieux itself is a small town, but rich in medieval history. It retains a small but beautiful cathedral with much of its original stained glass, including a rather surprising one of Saint Peter.
The towns significance changed in the early XXth Century when Thérèse of Lisieux, a Carmelite Nun, was canonized. In response, it was decided to build a large basilica dedicated to her in the city where she lived and died. Built between 1929 and 1954 the basilica dominates a hill at the edge of Lisieux. It's only as you walk up the hill towards it you realise its scale, dwarfing the cathedral less than a kilometer away. It's enormous- the central hall can apparently accommodate 4000 people. Such is Thérèse's fame this is now the second most popular pilgrimage site in France after Lourdes.
I wasn't brought up in a Christian, let alone Catholic tradition so Sainthood still puzzles me somewhat, although pilgrimages always fascinate. It amazes me that people will travel thousands of miles to come here. At this stage I would like to be kind about the Basilica's architecture, but I can't. The main hall is built to inspire awe. Every single centimeter of the wall space is covered with bright mosaic work. It's scale and ostentation seems pompous in relation to Therese's humble and poor life.
More humane in scale was the Carmel, a discreet modern building built onto the site of St Therese's convent. Inside are her actual relics built around an extraordinary display of affection- from fresh flowers to wall plaques commissioned by the faithful for miracles and prayers answered.
Sunday was brocante day. We were up at 5am to see if there were any goodies for early birds. There were, with one of the first traders we came across clearing out an attic of old clothes. We bought almost everything in an orgy of musty cotton which filled our little car.
Before sunrise we had visited half the brocante and with elbows and shoulders jostling against other bargain hunters we managed to collect a good range of classic French antiques, ephemera and knick-knacks for the shop. As the day drew on it was clear the actions of the gilets jaunes was having an effect. By late morning a fair like this should have been crammed but, although busy, Lisieux was still quite relaxed. The casual shoppers, "normal" punters hoping for cheap furniture or decoration had decided not to come. The town was hence filled with the over-committed professional hunters, determined like us to root out any antique bargains.
By Sunday evening, having been up and on our feet for 14 hours or so we stopped for nourishment. A local restaurant the night before had dazzled us with a "Camemburger" (pretty much fried camembert... in a burger bun) so we returned for black pudding galette and cider. It was a perfect end to what, for us, had a been a great weekend. The fair had been well planned and compact making it easy to navigate and explore fully over a day. In comparison the vast brocante at Amiens sprawls over such a large area there's always a sense of having to rush in case you miss a bargain.
Also Lisieux, like most mid-sized towns in France, has its own identity and its own elegance and charms. Watching the news we realised the Gilets Jaunes action had actually paralysed large sections of rural France. It all seemed another world, of angry people and unlistening powerful men. I knew that the next day we would again be driving for hours through bocage and villages but we went to bed happy, cheery and full.